Pre-Match Report

Arsenal v Sunderland - Match Preview

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By Richard Clarke  

The upside of this rollercoaster Premier League season is that the peaks can recur as often as the troughs.

Arsenal were out of the race on November 31 then led the table on January 20. They dipped again after back-to-back losses to Manchester United and Chelsea but, in the last round of matches, closed the gap to a more manageable six points.

Their only game since then has been a bewildering 2-1 beating at Porto on Wednesday. Again, the prevailing mood has blackened but, yet again, the overall situation is under their control.

THAT free-kick dominated the manager's media work on Friday to such an extent he was barely asked about the home game with struggling Sunderland this weekend.

Nonetheless, opportunity is knocking.

On Saturday, Manchester United travel to Everton and Chelsea go to a Wolves side who are in the best form of their, admittedly struggling, season. Draws would be damage enough if Arsenal can detach themselves from the drama at Estadio do Dragao and see off a Sunderland who have slipped down the table since beating Arsenal at Stadium of Light in November.

"You are always concerned in the game straight after a Champions League trip," admitted Wenger. "But if you have a choice you want to be at home.

"We want to be in Europe and we want to fight for the title. So let's take this situation in a positive way. We have the luck to play at home so we want to take advantage.

"We have a good opportunity to get three points against a team who fights not to go down. It will be a battle but we are even more determined after what happened on Wednesday night to bounce back and win our game.

"I believe that the optimism [in this situation] has to be shared by us. What other people think is less important. What is really important is what happens here at the training ground and what we put into our game. We want to be strong. We are in a fantastic position but now it depends on how we turn it our way."

However injuries continue to be unkind. Although Alex Song (knee) and Manuel Almunia (finger) will return, Wenger has lost the increasingly influential Abou Diaby with a medial knee ligament problem. Meanwhile Andrey Arshavin (hamstring), Eduardo (hamstring) and William Gallas (calf) will miss this game and, in all probability, next weekend's trip to Stoke.

It means Sol Campbell is set to continue at centre back. The 35-year-old was pretty solid on Wednesday and grabbed a crucial away goal. That represented a scoring run in the competition. Campbell had headed home in his last Champions League tie - the Final in Paris 42 months earlier.

"I believe Sol had a good game for us given that it was his second game in six months," said Wenger. "It is not coincidence he got up to score a header that could be vital in the Club's season."

Incredibly, Sunderland's last Premier League win was that 1-0 victory against Arsenal on November 21. Since then they are W0 D6 L6 in the League. Their last success away from home came on the opening day. It has been a worrying fall given their early season form.

"I remember I faced the press conference after that game and questions [about their Champions League qualification] were raised," remembered Wenger. "I said why not.

"But sport is fragile, football even more because it is a collective game. However right now we just want to win this game. It is at home so we know it is a good opportunity to put pressure on the leading teams."

Arsenal's leader, however, seems to be under his own individual strain at the moment. Cesc Fabregas has been enjoying special attention from his markers in recent games. It is understandable. As captain, driving force, creator, leading goal-scorer and talisman, he is the obvious target. His manager admitted he was concerned at Porto in midweek.

"Yes, I was worried," said Wenger. "He is under a lot of pressure and has a lot of responsibilities for such a young boy. He should be normally living in the shadow of the experienced players.
"He is 22 years-old, people forget that, and he has a huge weight on his shoulders. Personally I believe that he handles it tremendously well.
"But I can see as well that he is getting a bit more nervous because he wants so much to win."

Saturday needs to be a shoo-in for Arsenal. After the week they have had, a home tie against under-confident opposition is as much as they could hope for. Wenger's men need to take advantage and then, if the top two falter, the prevailing pessimism will disappear as quickly as it came.

Critics will claim you can drive a bus through Arsenal's title hopes. Injury-hit, inexperienced and lacking depth, they argue the top two will pull away during the business months of the season.

That may well transpire. But then, if earlier analyses had come true, Arsenal would have lost touch long before anyone had dug out their Christmas decorations and, indeed, back in August the team were said to be fighting an uphill battle to take fourth place from Manchester City.

The point is that this season might well end up trophyless but, as we stand, in mid-February, the team have put themselves in a position where they can strike for their main priorities.

Yes it could be better but it could be a whole heap worse.

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